June 03, 2024

Van Hollen Announces Award of Distinguished Service Cross to D-Day Veteran Waverly Woodson

Posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Cross - the second-highest U.S. military honor - follows years of advocacy by the Woodson family, First Army, historians, Senator Van Hollen, and others to recognize Woodson’s heroic D-Day actions that were overlooked due to his race

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced that World War II veteran Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. has been posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military honor, for saving countless lives during the Allied Invasion of Normandy of World War II. During the D-Day invasion, as a 21-year-old medic in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Woodson spent over 30 hours treating countless fellow soldiers amid intense combat and saved an estimated 200 lives – despite being wounded himself. Woodson was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but following the war settled in Clarksburg, Maryland, where his widow, Joann Woodson, and members of his family still reside. This award follows years of work led by the Woodson family, First Army, World War II historians, Senator Van Hollen and others to secure proper recognition of Woodson’s bravery and sacrifice during the D-Day invasion, which for too long were overlooked due to his race.

“Waverly Woodson earned a place among the most noble of American war heroes for his courageous display of valor on D-Day, but he has never received the full recognition that his actions clearly merited – largely due to the color of his skin. That’s why we’ve fought for years to secure the acknowledgement he deserved. The awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross – the highest award the Army can bestow on its own authority – recognizes his bravery and selfless service and marks a major step forward in our efforts to right this historic wrong. While we have more work to do to fully mark Mr. Woodson’s service, this is a momentous announcement, and I’m pleased to have worked alongside the Woodson family and others to bring us to this important occasion,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“Waverly would have felt honored to be recognized for what he knew was his duty. But we all know it was far more than duty; it was his desire to always help people in need,” said Joann Woodson.

“I am so thankful he is being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross as acknowledgment from his peers, The U.S. Army. Hopefully this will pave the way for further recognition of his heroism on D-Day for saving lives in the pursuit of freedom for the oppressed; that recognition being the Medal of Honor,” said Steve Woodson, Waverly Woodson’s son.

“We are deeply proud to count Waverly Woodson as one of the heroes and warriors who make up our long and proud First Army lineage,” said acting First Army Commanding General William A. Ryan. “We always say we stand on the shoulders of giants – Mr. Woodson is certainly one of them.”

First Army has a World War II-era Distinguished Service Cross that a group of Soldiers will take with them to Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day. They intend to lay the medal in the sands of Omaha Beach, at the spot where Woodson would have landed and set up his aid station. This historic and meaningful medal will be presented to the Woodson family during an award ceremony later this summer.

“We want to be able to tell Mrs. Woodson that the medal she is receiving on behalf of her beloved husband has actually been to Normandy, has actually been to the very place he performed his truly remarkable actions,” Maj. Gen. Ryan said.

Mr. Woodson served with First Army, the historic unit that commanded all ground and airborne forces on D-Day. As a 21-year-old medic in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – the only all-Black unit to storm the beaches of Normandy in “Operation Overlord” – Woodson treated countless fellow soldiers for over 30 hours amid intense combat and saved an estimated 200 lives, even though he was seriously injured himself when his boat hit a German mine in the ocean as it approached the beach. Despite his heroic sacrifice, Woodson never received a Medal of Honor, even though records from that period show the recommendation was made. In fact, of the hundreds of Medals of Honor conferred soon after World War II, not one Black soldier who deserved the highest U.S. military recognition was awarded it – revealing a clear pattern of racism in the decision-making process at that time. It was not until 1997 that seven Black servicemembers were awarded the Medal of Honor retroactively by President Clinton. Woodson made the short list for this ceremony but was not selected due to a lack of documentation; critical paperwork was lost in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., in the early 1970s.

Although contemporaneous news reports and other documents reflect not only Woodson’s heroism but an intent by his commander to recommend him for the Medal, this case lacks the documentation typically required for retroactive Medal of Honor upgrade requests. The documentation available has been determined by the Army to be insufficient to satisfy the standard used in other cases of retroactive medal upgrades. In an effort to meet this standard, historian-journalist Linda Hervieux, and later First Army Captain Kevin Braafladt, among others, have spent countless hours over many years searching archives for more evidence.

With the documentation they have uncovered, Senator Van Hollen – alongside Woodson’s 95-year-old widow, Joann, son Steve, and other members of his surviving family – has led the fight in Congress for the Medal of Honor upgrade for Woodson, who died at the age of 83 in 2005. Senator Van Hollen’s actions have included:

  • Writing to three Secretaries of the Army – twice under then-President Trump and later under President Biden – arguing Woodson’s case for the Medal of Honor;
  • Leading bicameral, bipartisan legislation to authorize the President to award the honor on the basis of the overwhelming public knowledge of Woodson’s valor;
  • Meeting with Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth directly on multiple occasions regarding the evidence for Woodson’s Medal of Honor eligibility; and 
  • Securing language in the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) empowering the President to confer the Medal of Honor without waiting for Congressional action. Previously, if a medal was recommended by the Army more than five years after the soldier’s service, Congress was required to pass a law waiving the time limit.

These actions, in conjunction with the persistent efforts of the family and historians, have cleared the path for Woodson’s Distinguished Service Cross upgrade. This upgrade follows the conferring of Woodson’s Bronze Star and Combat Medic Badge to his family at an official First Army ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in October 2023. The upgrade to Medal of Honor remains the final step in the decades-long pursuit of justice and the recognition befitting of Woodson’s valor. The Senator, Woodson’s family, and others will continue to make the case for Woodson to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Joann Woodson and her family remain deeply involved in ensuring that her late husband gets the recognition he deserves. If awarded the Medal of Honor, she intends to donate it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.